In 2008, when I was at UC, I took a class on education as it fits into cultural phenoms and cultural groups. We had to write a long, detailed ethnography, exploring our own families traditions, familial patterns, and the like, as a distinct cultural group with a lens towards historical events which would have shaped behavior.
We were to interview the oldest person we knew to begin to collect “data” and understand our families through genealogy, culture, spirituality, material possessions and artifacts, educational patterns, etc. At the time, choosing the oldest person in my family was slim pickin’s. Uncle Ron, my grandmother’s last remaining brother, was the oldest living relative I knew, at the ripe old age of 66.
While I had heard family names of people I’d never met frequently while growing up, and visited annually each Easter their graves at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery, I hadn’t given much thought to who these people were. Two particularly great aunts were told in stories together and their names sounded like one: AuntieAggieandAuntieBernie. The sounds kind of bumbling in your mouth like a car hitting speedbumps and potholes. Fused in pronunciation and every story, they became one entity, a duo of women that existed together in every recollection, every tale.
Interviews with Ronald Lee Meyer, Sr. (grandchild of Edward and Margaret Bahr Suermann) indicate that the youngest Suermann, Mary Agnes was born with cerebral palsy. The Suermann family followed advice from the town physician [In Indiana] to institutionalize Mary Agnes, “Aggie” around the age of four, since public or private schooling did not exist for children living with disabilities. Margaret was not comfortable with this decision, but followed the physicians advice regardless. The institution was located in a nearby town in Indiana, though the exact city could not be recalled and public records on rural Indiana could not be found. Ronald Meyer, Sr. continued that family visited Mary Agnes in the institution. Each visit they found Mary Agnes weeping and incredibly unhappy. The staff insisted that Mary Agnes was unable to talk. The Suermann’s however, were aware that Mary Agnes could talk and that she told them stories of the treatment in the institution. The Suermann’s followed the traditional advice at the time that children with disabilities should reside in institutions. However, the breaking point in the Suermann family was on a final visit to the institution when Mary Agnes recalled to them that all children were stripped naked, laid out on a gymnasium floor on mats, and sprayed with a hose to be bathed.
I want to be upfront and honest that this is neither a criticism of the Suermann family or praise for how they lived and what was decided. I wasn’t there and we all know that families make the best decisions they can with the resources and answers they are given. Aggie, being institutionalized at age 4 was what was expected. It was, the “norm” for a child that was deemed not “normal.” The Suermann’s removing her from an Indiana state institutional was not the norm, but it would change how Aggie’s life would unfold.
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